Living in a concrete jungle like Hong Kong, it can be hard to fall in love with art and nature. Many of us live in tiny flats in tower blocks, so it is difficult to imagine being surrounded by a lush, beautiful landscape that looks like a painting. We are rarely inspired to pick up a spade or a paintbrush.
I found this inspiration when I visited Giverny, France. It was my 11th birthday, and I had begged my parents to take me there to see reclusive French painter Claude Monet's house and gardens. As an admirer of many of his paintings, and a nature lover, I really wanted to see Monet's legendary gardens for myself.
So my family and I hired a car from Paris, and drove for an hour and a half through the lush green French countryside to reach Giverny.
It was in this quaint, endearing French town that the legendary painter lived and worked for 40 years.
The man with a plan
Monet was the founder of Impressionism, a school of art that focuses on the feeling of a picture, rather than precise lines and shapes. Following this belief, Monet chose to paint outdoors. Using real life settings and vibrant colours, he turned the natural world into his life-long studio.
What is most amazing is that his gardens, cultivated over decades, are very much like his paintings. Bursting with colours and flowers of all shapes and sizes, they give the illusion of being informal and unconstrained. But in reality, they are a part of a planned and carefully composed masterpiece.
This is where the real genius of Monet lies. He was a great visualiser. He developed and planted his gardens in such a way that they looked natural, but showed great depth and volume through mixing flowers of different types and heights.
These gardens were the inspiration for some of his most famous paintings. He spent years doing a series of paintings called The Jardins.
After Monet's death in 1926, his house and gardens were passed on to Foundation Claude Monet, which manages and looks after them to this day.
A tour of the grounds
According to the foundation, every year more than half a million people visit Monet's historic and enchanting gardens. The area is divided into two main parts: the first is a flower garden called Clos Normand. It has thousands of blooming flowers in a riot of colours.
Full of ripe fruit trees, pink roses, yellow marigolds, blue hollyhocks, purple tulips, indigo hydrangeas and red fuchsias, Clos Normand is delightful and cheery.
People spend hours sitting on the benches and admiring the varied perspectives, symmetry and colours that this garden offers.
Then you must cross an underground tunnel to reach the second part, the water garden. It is filled with serene water lilies and it is also home to the famous Japanese bridge.
Monet loved collecting Japanese prints, and the water garden, which he immortalised in his Water Lilies series of paintings, is inspired by them.
The garden has a small river called Ru, a beautiful pond with water lilies in multiple hues, and a Japanese bridge built across the pond that is overgrown with dark green weeping willows and purple wisteria.
The effect is almost magical, and is enhanced by the fact that Monet created his water garden in an oval shape. When you enter the garden, you feel like you are stepping into a peaceful painting! In fact, I got so lost in these gardens, that my family only found me after a frantic search!
That eventful afternoon, strolling through Monet's gardens, I took hundreds of pictures and fell hopelessly in love with both art and nature.
The gardens are breathtakingly beautiful and bursting with colours, and everywhere I turned, it looked like a Monet painting. Even the houses are green and pink, and look like an extension of the garden. It's all so cleverly designed.
Advice from an old master
I was fortunate enough to speak to James Priest, the chief gardener of Monet's gardens. He has been working for three years to restore the gardens to their original magical beauty.
Priest says that his biggest hope is to encourage young people around the world to develop a green thumb, and to make nature and art a part of their daily lives.
"You always have a place to plant a flower pot, even in big cities," Priest advises. "Mix bright colours - the reds and the oranges, the purples and the yellows - something Monet loved doing, and you can create your very own painting."
Indeed, Monet's gardens at Giverny can be a learning canvas for everyone. People can let loose their creativity and turn gardening into an art form. Gardening and art can both be great stress busters, especially for Hongkongers. This is easily seen in the calming effect Monet's gardens have on visitors.
"What is truly priceless about Monet's gardens is how much they touch people. People often tell me how they cried when they entered the Gardens. In today's world when there is so much stress and fatigue, being with nature can be great therapy," says Priest.
"Often when the day is ending, the crowds have gone home and the sun is setting, I walk in the gardens and can almost feel the presence of Monet there," he adds. "It is as if he is talking to me and telling me how to shape them and keep his gardens alive."
Gardening is a wonderful hobby to have, especially in a fertile land such as Hong Kong. It is something every young person should try. It's a welcome change from our iPads and video games, and a great way to enjoy the beautiful outdoors.
And you don't need to travel to Monet's gardens in France, or buy expensive plants to get started. Priest's advice to all young gardeners is to choose simple flowers. "Use flowers like sunflowers, zinnias, irises and daisies. They can grow anywhere. Mix colours, heights and volumes, and you can have a bit of Claude Monet everywhere!"